Judith Tendler, and learning from ‘good government’

On 24th July 2016, Judith Tendler, former Professor at the Department of Urban studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Boston, passed away. She was 77. A Ph.D from Columbia University, Judith Tendler spent several years at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), before a long career as a Professor in MIT. A significant share of Prof. Tendler’s work focused on the Americas, but she also studied South Asia and parts of Africa over her long career.

Prof Tendler’s book: ‘Good Government in the Tropics’ (1997) is one of the most influential books in the field of international development — an essential reading for students of governance and public policy studies. In the book, Prof Tendler and her research associates studied four cases of successful government in Ceara, a relatively poor state in north-eastern Brazil. In each of the cases, the government at different levels played an effective role, facilitating and brokering relationships, and submitting itself to mechanisms which could be used to hold themselves accountable. Those were rare, but rich, examples of ‘good government’.

These cases highlighting the achievements of ‘good governments’ challenged the dominant pessimistic thinking about governance in the so-called ‘third world’. Prof Tendler argued that much of the advice from international development agencies to developing countries was based on an analysis of poor performance of the public sector and governments. This resulted in a tendency to ‘import’ good practices from the successful developed countries, as well as a resistance to looking deeply into poor countries to identify variations in performance. In many ways. Prof Tendler consistently challenged the pre-suppositions that development agencies and policy advisors nurtured and which, as a result, shaped the advice they dispensed into narrow straitjackets often unfit for the context in which they were to be applied.

One of the interesting, if surprising, conclusions of Prof Tendler’s research for the book is that local governments (or non-government organisations, for that matter) were not inherently any better at service delivery. In the 1990s, the push for decentralised governance was very strong, and several countries, including India, made significant progress in decentralising power to tiers of government closer to its citizens. At the same time, policymakers and advocates were locked in debates over whether decentralisation led to positive outcomes. In this context, a call to look beyond established models of decentralisation and look for variations in implementation in different contexts was highly valuable.

The researchers found that service delivery improved in Ceara not because the central government got out of the way and allowed the local governments and civic action a free hand, but because it involved itself in a self-interested fashion, monitoring delivery by local governments, and playing an active role in civic education. This was quite unlike the conventional thinking around decentralisation at the time, and we are better off for it. In the book, Prof Tendler does not argue that her cases represented the norm. Instead, her point was simply that the politics of implementation merit far more attention than it had so far received. More and more now, researchers studying public policy are expected to focus on ‘implementation’ — looking beyond ‘what works’ to the ‘why’ and ‘how’. The learning agenda that is fast gaining currency too has been enriched by this focus on implementation, as it takes organisations into reflecting deeper on how to make change happen.

The questions Prof Tendler posed about an uncritical belief in the merits of decentralisation, the ability of civil society as an agent to hold the government accountable, or the fatalism that prevails regarding the commitment of public sector employees, are highly relevant today in India. It has been clear for some time now that the model of decentralised governance in India will look different in each state, and rightly so. A single framework for analysis therefore, will not work. Similarly, hybrid forms of civic action continue to thrive, as there is increasing pressure to work with government, and yet retain its independence. Finally, implementation capacity of the state remains a challenge, as the state attempts to restore credibility. The experiments with technology-enabled solutions and motivational messages directed at the bureaucracy are efforts in that direction.

As we analyse public sector reforms, the work of Prof Tendler will remain a great source of insight: there is no silver bullet, other than incremental improvement, and evidence-based iteration.


Do donors need more (and better) Contract Managers to deliver results?

I frequently come across people who say that donors are under increasing pressure to spend more with fewer staff. This usually comes from friends and colleagues that work with donor agencies, or those that interact closely with them. This is supposed to be largely a consequence of pressure from domestic tax-payers, who have refused to continue to fund bloated aid bureaucracies.

This directly impacts how donors approach the ‘results agenda’. The ‘results agenda’ implies an expectation from donor agencies that they record and report results that their funds are able to achieve. The focus therefore is on outputs and outcomes, as well as the cost at which these were achieved, and on demonstrating how they compare against context-relevant benchmarks. For donors, this means selecting the right implementing partners, and holding them to account for the delivery of cost-effective results.

But this also means rethinking how donor agencies themselves are run. An important question that donors face is regarding the staff composition in their offices (especially the country offices). Should there be more Programme Managers or Contract Managers? The easy answer of course is to say, “we need both”. But what should be the balance of power between the two? In this post, I acknowledge this is a genuine dilemma, but deliberately argue for the latter.

One of my main points in a previous post was that to navigate the results agenda donors need to invest in their staff.

Donors that adopt the ‘results agenda’ (or the value for money agenda, for that matter) need to invest time and resources to ensure their staff fully understand the implications of this agenda, the mechanisms through which it is to be implemented, and most importantly, its limitations. It is possibly redundant to state that ‘context matters’, but it really does. As donors continue to trim down staff, it places greater emphasis on their ability to manage projects and contracts with implementers in ways that are accountable, and yet retain the flexibility necessary for development work

Again, this will not be possible without a mix of technically competent staff who are also adept at administering programmes. My observation is that in an environment where donors design and then contract out programmes, it is crucial that they possess a battery of effective contract managers.

I should clarify what I mean by contract managers. One, I refer to contracts in a general sense – all grants are bound by contracts; so are all service providers. I refer specifically to programmes, and not to service vendors. Second, those managing these contracts are essentially those that are currently called desk officers, advisers, programme officers, or something similar. What I am arguing in this post is that these people need to be more adept at contract management – and if pushed, I am arguing the side that their ability to draw up and manage contracts (of which commercial acumen is a part) needs strengthening. Here are two reasons why:

  • Prominent donor agencies these days are not short of programme funds. Significant sums of money need to be “programmed”, and in its most elementary form, this could be understood as signing and managing contracts worth the size of your annual budget. Given that donors rely on grantees and contractors to deliver projects, the ability to run competitive procurement processes, and manage tight contracts is critical. Moreover, corporate support services of finance and administration are also under considerable strain in many agencies.
  • In the areas of service delivery, advocacy or research, leading experts are increasingly to be found not within donor agencies, but in implementing agencies, service providers, think-tanks or research institutes. Donors contract these specialists as required, using a variety of contractual modalities. As more and more technical work is delegated to external agencies, donor staff are required to focus on effective contract management. This naturally reduces the extent of technical resources required in country offices.

All the same, it is important to consider the issue of staff motivation. When development professionals land jobs in big multilateral or bilateral agencies, how do they see their own role? Do they see their role as being efficient administrators of programmes, or are they keen to make a personal impact on the design and execution of programmes they manage? If it is the latter, staff would want to focus on programmes, and try to leave the bulk of the administration to somebody else – which wouldn’t quite work in the scenario that I describe above. One would have to navigate this carefully, creating alternate ways to boost staff morale. Ultimately, this ties into developing a shared organisational vision, mission and work-culture.

On balance, there would seem to be a pretty strong argument for donors to invest in more (and better) Contract Managers. I by no means fit the profile of a contract manager, or an administrator – so I can already hear a chorus of voices loudly protesting this suggestion. As I said earlier – it’s probably true that we need both contract managers and programme managers, but perhaps, the balance of power should tilt towards the former. The retinue of technical experts, researchers, statisticians, communication experts, etc, all have a place of their own – but perhaps are best placed in support functions (at headquarters) that help core contract managers deliver on their responsibilities. Contract managers will be experts not only in drawing up and enforcing contracts, but also have advanced budget and financial management skills.

What of donors that have a strong policy and advocacy focus, you ask? Won’t they need strong technical leads to further their agenda? Yes, that is true, but unless on their own, they form the dominant focus of an agency in a country, the above formulation should still hold. Also, fears of donors removing themselves farther from the reality of implementation if they are staffed increasingly by contract managers is not entirely unfounded, but is certainly not an unresolvable problem, and therefore a risk worth bearing.

As donors and their operational contexts evolve, and as the modalities of development cooperation changes, the strategic choices donors make about how they operate and how they are staffed will continue to evolve.


PS: Two small examples that hold meaning in the context of this post (or perhaps I am being entirely facetious)

  • DFID introduced its Smart Rules last year – a broad operating framework focused on programmes, intended to support DFID staff in improving programme delivery. Out of the 37 mandatory rules listed, I could find no more than 5 that refer directly to designing development programmes, or managing the complexity of their operating environments
  • I find it interesting that USAID is headed by an ‘Administrator’ – perhaps an absolutely honest descriptor of what that position entails, or perhaps entirely misleading – what do you think?

Living with the ‘results agenda’, redux

Craig Valters’ Devex post, based on yet another newsworthy ICAI report, seems to have somewhat revived the debate over the ‘results agenda. The criticism is sharper, castigating DFID for the “unintended effect of focusing attention on quantity of results over their quality” – but also one that clearly implies that the ‘results agenda’ is not well-understood or widely shared within donors like DFID. Focusing on ‘results’ cannot mean a divorce from long-term outcomes. What ICAI describes sounds more like an outputs agenda that is transactional (what your money can buy) rather than transformative (the good change).

The consequence of this bean-counting is that complex problems risk being ignored: donors and the partners they fund will tend to focus on projects, rather than systems. Also, genuine accountability along the aid-chain takes a hit due to a general break-down of trust between the different actors. So what can we do about this?

Invest in staff: The response to the criticism of the ‘results agenda’ cannot just be an argument highlighting the importance of results. The response needs to demonstrate ways in which the results agenda can positively influence development work and focusing on the mechanisms by which the multiple actors in development can come together in making this happen. Donors that adopt the ‘results agenda’ (or the value for money agenda, for that matter) need to invest time and resources to ensure their staff fully understand the implications of this agenda, the mechanisms through which it is to be implemented, and most importantly, its limitations. It is possibly redundant to state that ‘context matters’, but it really does. As donors continue to trim down staff, it places greater emphasis on their ability to manage projects and contracts with implementers in ways that are accountable, and yet retain the flexibility necessary for development work. 

Use your existing toolkits better: Have logframes become the blunt hammer in our pursuit of results? Probably. I personally don’t mind logframes as a concept, but detest the way they are usually used. Ideally, a logframe development exercise should reveal the level of complexity of a project design. Those working on it realise during the process that the outcomes that really matter are often misfits in a logframe, because there aren’t clear baselines, nor are there objective and accurate measurement techniques. If a project logframe is then drawn up primarily to satisfy a contractual obligation, it usually sacrifices this complexity and settles for outputs and outcomes that can be easily counted. Donors must resist the temptation to do this.

Fight for political space: Bilaterals are under particular pressure to ‘perform’ in the eyes of their domestic constituencies. Multilaterals are under less pressure, but that distinction may soon blur as donor country citizens start demanding more from their respective contributions to pooled funds. This therefore calls for greater savvy to fight for greater political space. Smart communication is one way. Being honest about the distinction between ‘outputs’ and ‘outcomes’ is probably too much nuance for a domestic audience, but remains important nevertheless. International aid assistance, whether channeled through the Foreign Office or through a dedicated department should be able to resist being pushed around by a tabloid press. Ok, not entirely clear how this will be achieved, but clearly, one must try fight it as much as possible.

Create room within: Be it the UN, World Bank, DFID or a sub-national government, have always held that there are some fantastically creative bureaucrats that thrive within these systems who either possess (or are backed by) powers that can create space for Doing Development Differently (DDD). In the DDD workshop at Cambridge, Joel Hellman, from the World Bank talked about the classical “project” and while he agreed that it is at the root of many problems, he encouraged participants to come up with ways in which one can find space to manoeuvre within the system – such as custom-made financing facilities such as Payment by Results for instance. We need a concerted push towards creating room for flexible approaches within the classical aid bureaucracies.

The challenge of Doing Development Differently

I attended the first Doing Development Differently (DDD) workshop organised by the BSC gang at Harvard CID and ODI; read more about the workshop here. See Day 1 summary; and Day 2 summary. Some thoughts, over time:

  1. DDD is the big picture: DDD is about the details and and the beauty of innovation and creativity on the ground. But more importantly, DDD is about the big picture. As the workshop signalled (at least) to me, the battleground for the DDD conspirators/crusaders is the top table, with donors and policymakers; the moneybags, decision-makers and influencers. Expressed in an extremely cliched way, the goal ought to be to facilitate d on the ground by changing the rules of the D game. This makes sense to me. Gathering and influencing activists and local champions is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for real change. Unless those determining the overarching policy environment for localised development work are willing to change their fixed ways, there can can be little progress. At the same time, this workshop definitely missed a trick by not having participants from governments (I am sure they considered this long and hard), which in many middle income countries have come to be all of the above – the moneybags, policy/decision-maker,etc. This is also the way DDD will be able to go beyond aid.
  2. DDD is not new: Much of the conversation was about familiar themes: participation, logframes, being locally embedded, stakeholder analyses, decentralisation, etc; neither are the champions (think-tanks, academics, NGOs and donors) a new species in development. But that shouldn’t be a dampener – we can never have too many good ideas. What will be interesting to follow is the contours of the coalitions DDD is able to draw up; how members find support with and from each other; and eventually, how this shapes the D game. What is new for these actors possibly is some of the language – which references the strategies used by private sector players.   
  3. But, DDD is damn hard and risky: There are plenty of enemies out there – the rigid project structures, the business cases, the impatient donor desk officer, the weary community (of “beneficiaries” and on-lookers), etc. Attempting DDD comes with its risks and in most jobs in the development world (with the possible exception of research-y ones), it is unclear if the rewards at the end of the tunnel outweigh the numerous manholes on the way. So why would anyone try out DDD? And if they did, how will they muster up the personal/institutional capital to do so? For how long can one fight the establishment?
  4. Therefore, be smart:Thinking and Working Politically; Politically Smart, Locally Led – all of these arguably are only a difference of semantics compared to DDD. Creating space within the aid establishment requires forming alliances. Be it the UN, World Bank, DFID or the Government of Bihar (once upon a time), I have always held that there are some fantastically creative bureaucrats that thrive within these systems who either possess (or are backed by) powers that can create space for DDD. Joel Hellman, from the World Bank talked about the classical “project” and agreed that it is at the root of many problems, but also encouraged us to think of ways in which one can find space to manoeuvre within the system – such as custom-made financing facilities, perhaps. Some of the younger participants (and I will include myself in this group) found it difficult at times to agree that the “project” is the problem – so thoroughly trained we all are in the mainstream development model. For us then, the idea of finding room for manoeuvre sounds that much more attractive, although that might mean that the revolution will be delayed.
  5. PDIA is not a model (I checked with Matt!) – rather, PDIA is one of the ways of DDD and falls within that tent. I wondered about the abuse of the term PDIA, i.e, if PDIA gets ‘mainstreamed’, everyone and their nephew will produce case studies that mimic the essential ingredients of PDIA. This has happened with ‘participation’ – at one point, everything everywhere was participatory and local. Many a stick was handed over just in time for a telling picture or a stirring case study. Important then, to find a balance between a large inclusive camp and an intellectually elitist one. This is a balance every movement has to strike and in the spirit of PDIA, continually revisit over its lifetime. However, it is important to anticipate this challenge. That the World Bank is so enthusiastic about it should make them wary already – its as clear a sign as any that PDIA and DDD are well on their way to being ‘mainstreamed’. But then, remember the ‘top table’ argument – that is the high stakes DDD game. Also, hopefully, the DDD tribe will ensure that DDD doesn’t get confined to a single model – not a Payment by Results (PbR) one; nor an Embedded Technical Assistance (ETA) one. We truly need to allow a thousand flowers to bloom.
  6. DDD is spreading! – The principles of DDD are finding their ways into many donor RfPs. Those proposing projects are being forced to regurgitate the jargon, hopefully in ways that make sense. Do I see donors reaching out to their partners and contractors to make sure they ‘get’ it? Not as much as I would like.

All of this is very exciting. Getting deeper into this has implications for everything: in our personal lives as much as in our professional ones; in how we do and learn. Will stay tuned.

‘Going public’ with decisionmaking

This is a joint post with Heather – 4th in our series on decisionmaking; now also on the World Bank PSD blog


In our last post, we discussed how establishing “relevant reasons” for decision-making ex ante may enhance the legitimacy and fairness of deliberations on resource allocation. We also highlight that setting relevant decision-making criteria can inform evaluation design by highlighting what evidence needs to be collected.

We specifically focus on the scenario of an agency deciding whether to sustain, scale or shut down a given programme after piloting it with an accompanying evaluation — commissioned explicitly to inform that decision. Our key foci are both how to make evidence useful to informing decisions and how, recognizing that evidence plays a minor role in decision-making, to ensure decision-making is done fairly.

For such assurance, we primarily rely on Daniels’ framework for promoting “accountability for reasonableness” (A4R) among decision-makers. If the four included criteria are met, Daniels argues, it will bring legitimacy to deliberations and, he further argues, consequent fairness to the decision.

In this post, we continue with the second criterion to ensure A4R: the publicity of decisions taken drawing on the first criterion, relevant reasons. We consider why transparency – that is, making decision criteria public – enhances the fairness and coherence of those decisions. We also consider what ‘going public’ means for learning.

Disclaimer: logistical uncertainties / room for conversation and experimentation

From the outset, we acknowledge the many unanswered questions about how much publicity or transparency suffice for fairness and how to carry it out.

  • Should all deliberations be opened to the public? Made available ex post via transcripts or recordings? Or, is semi-transparency — explicitly and publicly announcing ex post the criteria deemed necessary and sufficient to take the final decision — acceptable, while the deliberation remains behind closed doors?

  • Who is the relevant public?

  • Can transparency be passive – making the information available to those who seek it out – or does fairness require a more active approach?

  • What does ‘available’ or ‘public’ mean in contexts of low-literacy and limited media access?

We do not address these questions — which are logistical and empirical as well as moral — here. As the first-order concern, we consider why this criterion matters.

Fairness in specific decisions

Any decision about resource allocation and limit-setting will be contrary to the preferences of some stakeholders – both those at and not at the decision table. In our scenario, for example, some implementers will have invested some quantity of blood, sweat and tears into piloting a program and may, as a result, have opinions on whether the program should continue; or, those that were comfortable in their inaction (as a result of lack of directives or funds or just plain neglect) who will now have to participate in a scale-up. There will be participants that benefitted during the pilot – and those who would have done so if the programme were scaled – that may prefer to see the programme maintained.

These types of unmet preferences shape Daniels’s central concern: what can an agency* say to those people whose preferences are not met by a decision to convince them that, indeed, the decision “seems reasonable and based on considerations that take… [their] welfare into account?”** Being able to give acceptable explanations to stakeholders about a decision is central to fairness.

Coherence across decisions

The acceptability of criteria for a given decision contribute to the fairness of that decision. But long-run legitimacy of decision-makers benefits from consistency and coherency in organizational policy. Transparency, and the explicitness it requires, can foster this.

Once reasons for a decision are made public, it is more difficult to not deal with similar cases similarly – the use of ‘precedent’ in judicial cases aptly illustrates this phenomenon. Treating like as like is an important requirement of fairness. Daniels envisions that a series of explicated decisions can function as an organizational counterpart of ‘case law’. Future decision-makers can draw on past deliberations to establish relevant reasons. Deviations from past decisions would need to be justified by relevant reasons.

Implications for learning, decision-making and evaluations

If all decision-makers acknowledge that, at least, the final reasons for their decisions will be publicly accessible, how might that change the way they commission an evaluation and set about using the evidence from it?

  • It should encourage a review of past deliberations to help determine currently relevant reasons. Second, it might encourage decision-makers and evaluators to consider as relevant reasons and measures that will be explainable and understandable to the public(s) when justifying their decisions.

  • In planning evaluations, decision-makers and researchers will have to consider the clarity in methods of data collection and analysis — effectively, will it pass a ‘grandmother test’? Moreover, does it pass such a test when that granny is someone affected by your allocative decision? Remember the central question that makes this criterion necessary: what can an agency say to those whose preferences are not met by a decision that, indeed, the decision “seems reasonable and based on considerations that take… [their] welfare into account?”

  • There are reasons that decision-makers might shy away from transparency. In his work on health plans, Daniels notes that such organizations speculatively feared media and litigious attacks. In our pilot-and-evaluate scenario, some implementers may not be comfortable with publicising pilots that may fail; or from raising expectations of beneficiaries that are part of pilots.

  • The fear of failure may influence implementers; this may lead to low-risk/low-innovation pilots. Again, this is an important consideration raised above, in the questions we did not answer: when and how much transparency suffices for fairness?

In our last blog, we stressed on the importance of engaging stakeholders in setting ‘relevant reasons’ before a project begins, as a key step towards fair deliberative processes as well as a way of shaping evaluations to be useful for decision-making. Ensuring publicity and transparency of the decision-making criteria strengthens the perception of a fair and reasonable process in individual cases and over time.

This also sets the stage for an appeals process, where stakeholders can use evidence available to them to advocate a certain way forward; it also allows for stakeholders to revisit the decision-making criteria and the decisions they fostered – the subject of our next post in this series.


*We note that donors don’t actually often have to answer directly to implementers and participants for their decisions. We do not, however, dismiss this as a terrible idea.

**We are explicitly not saying ‘broader’ welfare because we are not endorsing a strictly utilitarian view that the needs of some can be sacrificed if the greater good is enhanced, no matter where or how  that good is concentrated.


Collective wisdom = better aid?

Is that necessarily the case? Owen advocates greater transparency and engagement with citizens of donor countries:

In the long run, public opinion will determine how much aid is given, to whom, and by what means: we cannot and should not try to sidestep the argument by putting the administration of aid beyond the reach of public opinion.

I agree that attempting to “deliver aid despite public opinion” is not the right way to go. This however obviously doesn’t imply that we go to the other extreme. A decent balance is necessary and all those responsible for administering aid ought to strive to strike a balance.

What about the so-called ‘beneficiaries’ then? As a citizen of a recipient country, would I want the kind of development that a foreigner chooses for me? Choices made by a literate media-savvy population that enjoys a high (and secure) standard of living…Can I be sure that needs voiced by my community would match what the public opinion in the donor countries desire? I agree that results, evidence and analysis can help shape the debate. But I also know only too well that these are only a part of the big picture – and that these alone are unlikely to shape public opinion and donor policies.

The size of aid in itself is unlikely to be significant enough to warrant sustained interest among people beyond those linked directly with the aid industry. Sure, public interest would be high if one considers the sum total of policies that affect international development – trade, migration, outsourcing etc – and that’s probably the reason political rhetoric on these issues usually lean towards being protective of local interests in most western countries. (And rightly so).
From Owen’s article, it is clear enough why citizens of donor countries need to be engaged. One also needs to stress as strongly that citizens of recipient countries need to be heard as well. Of course, Owen himself has written previously about how to get feedback from aid beneficiaries.

Hence, to a large extent, the captains of the aid industry (including, say the trade, defence and finance ministries) have to take the responsibility of directing the course of international aid, receiving and integrating feedback from recipient governments and their citizens, their own citizens and their peers in the aid industry.